'It has definitely been a bad year, public relations-wise, for the European Union...'
British and Irish businesses want a reformed EU with the UK at the table, John McGrane, head of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, told Sarah McCabe
Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30
One of the peculiarities of the looming threat of a British exit from the European Union is just how quiet so many businesses have been on the subject.
Britain is overwhelmingly Ireland's largest trading partner; some €1bn worth of goods and services are bought and sold between the two islands every week.
Ireland's dependence on its next-door neighbour - and the potential for damage posed by that neighbour stepping out of well-established free-trade agreements - can't be overstated, says John McGrane.
He is director general of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, an organisation which has found itself in the middle of the maelstrom of a once-in-a-generation referendum that could shape the way the European Union does business for decades to come.
The chamber was set up in May 2011 to coincide with Queen Elizabeth's historic visit to Ireland, alongside a pledge by the British and Irish governments to do more to facilitate trade between the two states, though it is privately funded. It is a networking, lobbying and promotion group with a big membership, a who's who of household business names on both sides of the Irish Sea. They employ around two million Irish and British people and span virtually all sectors and sizes, from ABP Food Group to London City Airport, their variety a testament to just how much business the two islands do.
A smattering of Irish companies and top executives have made their feelings clear on the issue in recent months, like AIB chairman Richard Pym. At a chamber reception, Pym warned that "a border fence could have to go up between the Republic and Northern Ireland and a leave vote in the UK will almost certainly trigger a new referendum in Scotland".
But many have stayed silent, declining to express a view for fear of angering customers or business partners.
"That will probably change", McGrane says, as the referendum gets closer. "Look at the Scottish referendum - businesses made their voices heard quite late in the day, but when they did, it made a big difference to the result."
McGrane was one of the founders of the chamber, while working as head of product and services sales at Ulster Bank's corporate markets division, alongside companies like Fyffes, Glen Dimplex, Lloyds, Kingspan and PwC.
"Most people now know that Britain is Ireland's largest trading partner by a long shot. But for a time it was taken for granted. Proof of that is the fact that we didn't have a chamber until five years ago," he says.
And while many firms are reluctant to get involved in the debate just yet, there is a clear consensus forming among the chamber's members.
"Our members have diverse views on this. But the consensus is that Britain should stay - in a reformed, stronger EU" McGrane says. "Many of our members feel the EU needs a lot of work. A lot of that has to do with the single market and the fact that there are lots of goods and services that can't trade freely at all. There are lots of local standards still in existence.
"When a truck takes mushrooms from Monaghan to Milan, that should essentially be one interruption-free journey right across the continent. That's the idea of the single market.
"In practise the driver has to get out of the car too many times to present documents at different border posts and to pay local levies for road usage, because the market is different in different states. That's a basic example.
"Or the trading of renewable energy. The wind comes in off the Aran islands, it goes through a turbine and through a cable and under the Irish sea and through a cable in England, and it boils a kettle in Ketterington. That trade goes through numerous different regulations where there really should just be one set of rules. That's a big deal because energy costs are a very big part of our competitiveness.
"Or digital services. Look at geoblocking - media providers in one country barring access to their content to customers in other countries. That is not free movement.
The other big issue is speed, he says. "The EU needs to be able to move a lot faster. If you are a company in Manhattan looking at opening a foreign office, you can do it practically anywhere on earth now, particularly if you are selling services.
"While the EU does very well in winning some of those deals, we miss some others. That's because, people say, costs are too high, competitiveness is too low, there's an ageing demographic that is not properly funded and there are major security and defence issues.
"Is Europe in good order? Europe has a lot to do to take care of its business. There's no doubt it has been a bad few years, PR-wise, for the EU."
McGrane took the chamber's director general job after a 40-year career in banking. He grew up in Drogheda in the Sixties and Seventies, "a wonderful place to grow up and very focused on trade, given its location between the north and south and its busy port".
He moved to Dublin and joined Ulster right after leaving school in 1974, starting in its Dundrum branch.
He quickly realised he would need third-level education to go further, so studied for a BComm with UCD at night over five years, with professors like John Teeling.
He tried all of the traditional branch banking roles and developed an aptitude for business banking.
"At that stage, in the late Eighties/early Nineties, Ulster Bank was a distant third behind AIB and Bank of Ireland for business banking. We significantly grew market share, partly by building relationships with business groups like the Small Firms Association and the Institute of Certified Accountants."
He was lucky at Ulster Bank to work with "really brilliant" people, he says, like former chief executive Cormac McCarthy, who went on to be CFO of Paddy Power, and Ulster Bank Northern Ireland boss Ellvena Graham, who recently became chairwoman of ESB.
McGrane's predecessor at the chamber was Steve Aiken, who is now running for the Northern Ireland local assembly.
The group also has a president, which changes regularly; its latest is Lloyd's of London's Irish head Eamonn Egan, who is taking over from GlaxoSmithKline vice president Aidan Lynch.
Then there is its patron, Niall Fitzgerald, the former CEO and chair of Unilever and chairman of Reuters.
"When he speaks, people listen," McGrane says. "He is a surgically brilliant business practitioner".
There are a lot of organisations that seem to do similar things - Ibec, the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs among them. It begs the question - why was there a need for another?
What makes the chamber unique, he says, is that it is the only group that represents both sides - businesses on both sides of the Irish Sea. "There was nobody neutral, working for both."
One of his biggest tasks is to get his members, and their views, in front of government and decision makers. British secretary of state Philip Hammond recently hosted the chamber at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Later this month it will bring some of its members to the House of Commons for an audience with MPs.
Its lobbying work is "mostly to do with regulation, often with the aim of reducing regulatory interference in trade."
He lives with wife Irene, a heritage tourism consultant, in Dublin's Donnybrook. They have three children who live across two continents - daughter Valerie works for KPMG in New York, Mary is a fundraising manager for a Dublin charity and Jack lives in Canada.
He is a member of the board of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and musical charity Music Network, having just retired from the board of the National Concert Hall.
Wedding his passion for music and Dublin city is a campaign to rename part of the capital the 'National Concert Hall Quarter,' to better promote its musical heritage.
He also runs a technology start-up, NSI Technology, founded after he left Ulster Bank.
The company provides non-profit organisations like trade bodies and charities with technology to help them organise and cut costs.
"Just because they are voluntary organisations doesn't mean they shouldn't be strong on costs and operate a strong business model," he says.
He spends about half of his week in Britain, some of that in the North.
"We are doing a lot of work in Northern Ireland at the moment, because it is the most exposed of any part of the UK to a Brexit scenario. 60pc of its exports go to the EU including the Republic of Ireland.
"The net cost the UK pays to be in the EU, to access a market of 500m people, is less than £9bn.
"Whereas it costs the UK more than £11bn a year to subsidise Northern Ireland, for around 2m people. Both are very good value for Britain."
The chamber's job is not to tell people how to vote on June 23, he insists. "We do not tell people how to vote. We respect that the decision lies with the people who have a vote.
"What we are committed to is providing as much information as possible and providing a platform for debate so that people are informed, and encouraging as many of them to vote as possible.
It will be a tight race. "It is neck and neck right now. You can take your pick among the polls. Between 20 and 30pc of the UK population are in the 'don't know' category' and those votes are very important."
"We estimate there are between 1-1.5 million voters who either have dual citizenship or close relationships with Irish people, either through family or neighbours or similar, who could be the difference between that yes and no vote."
Brexit should be perceived as an opportunity as well as a threat, he adds.
"We are poised at an opportunity to bring about the European Union we always wanted."
Sunday Indo Business